Greatest Hits 2010: Making Boring Skill Challenges More Exciting

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on December 29, 2010

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2010. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

There is one really obvious way to make any boring skill challenge more exciting that I didn’t mention in the original article – getting everyone to participate. I’ve noticed when I’m playing in public games at my FLGS (especially D&D Encounters) that some players aren’t participating in skill challenges. Any encounter you don’t participate in is going to seem boring to you.

Many players assume that it’s the DM’s responsibility to ensure everyone is included. I agree with this, but I also believe that experienced players must shoulder some of this burden. If you’re playing at a table where others aren’t participating try to encourage them to join in.

One reason I’ve heard that some players find skill challenges boring is because their character isn’t that good in very many skills. Too many players – especially newer players – think that they must use their best skills during a skill challenge. You have no idea how much I disagree with this thinking.

Let the narrative and the role-playing guide you during a skill challenge. Don’t look at the skills and then decide on your action, decide on your action and then look at your skills. If you’ve done a good job in-character of explaining what your character is doing and more importantly why they are doing it, the roll should be a lot less significant. Most DMs I’ve played with will usually ignore the roll and just award a success in this situation.

The next time players are complaining that a skill challenge is boring; make sure that it isn’t because they aren’t participating. Once you’re sure everyone is involved in the skill challenge then use the guidelines I’ve described below to work on other ways to spice things up.

From October 25, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Making Boring Skill Challenges More Exciting

Any skill challenge that isn’t a challenge is boring. Here at Dungeon’s Master we’ve written a lot of articles about skill challenges. We’ve created a lot of skill challenge templates intentionally made generic enough that you can drop them right into an existing campaign. However, some skill challenges just aren’t that challenging to some parties. This is especially true as PCs get to higher levels. So what do you do if you find a skill challenge you want to use in your campaign but it’s not going to challenge your players? Simple, you make it more challenging – and we’ll tell you how.

Some DMs feel that skill challenges aren’t that malleable. They believe that skill challenges are designed with a certain level in mind and if you try to adjust the numbers for a party more than a couple of levels up or down it’s not going to work. I wholeheartedly disagree. With a little bit of creative thinking most skill challenge can be adapted to suit your party, regardless of the PCs’ current level.

Defining what’s challenging will change significantly as the PCs advance. A dangerous encounter with serious repercussion to a level 1 party may not even seem like a scenario worth playing out for a more advance party. Let’s look at a really basic skill challenge as an example and we’ll make it more suitable (and a lot more exciting) for a higher level party.

In this example skill challenge the PCs are on their way from point A to point B. Along the way they need to cross a swift-flowing river atop a waterfall. Anything going over the edge of the waterfalls faces a 50-foot drop and will be slammed against the rocks below.

At level 1 this is a perilous task that makes for an interesting (albeit simple) skill challenge. Some immediate and obvious means to overcome this challenge include creating a raft, finding a bridge or simply fighting the current and swimming across. Failure means that some or all of the PCs are swept up by the current and falling over a waterfall. For low level PCs with 25-35 hit points, a fall of 50 feet represents a life-threatening situation.

At lower heroic tier (say, levels 1-5) this is a pretty reasonable challenge. There’s real danger if the PCs don’t achieve success. Some parties may even decide that crossing the river this close to the waterfall is just not worth the risk. They may decide to move further upstream before attempting the crossing – which is a valid way to limit the immediate danger. It’s up to the DM to decide if the PCs have to cross here or not. If they do then it needs to make sense within the bigger story.

Now let’s assume that a level 11 party is facing this same scenario. As the skill challenge is set up I wouldn’t even play this out for a level 11 party. I’d simply say in the narrative that the party had to cross a rushing river and they succeeded. However, if I wanted to use this skill challenge I’d need to make it more exciting. In order to do that there needs to be danger. If the party doesn’t have any fear of failure then it’s a boring encounter. So let’s make it more exciting.

There are three methods I use (on their own or in conjunction with one another) to make skill challenges more challenging:

  1. Higher DCs
  2. The threat of combat
  3. A time limit

These three devices are the easiest ways to make any mundane skill challenge more exciting and more suitable for a higher level party. They may seem like really obvious solutions, but working them into an existing skill challenge needs to make sense. Making a check go from DC 15 to DC 30 needs to be based on some reasonably explained detail in the encounter. Let’s go back to our river crossing and see how these three methods can make the simple skill challenge exciting for a much higher level party.

  1. Higher DC

  2. In order to adjust the DC in this encounter I’d modify the geography. In the initial description the river was 30 feet across and the waterfall was 50 feet high. By level 11 any PC with a 20 Strength and training in Athletics makes a jump check to cross the river with a 15 or better – still tough but not impossible. Many classes also provide PCs utility powers that allow them to teleport or fly their speed. This will easily let them cross without difficulty. So in order to make the DCs more difficult, just widen the river. Even an adjustment of 10 feet makes the jump check all but impossible for practically every PC (although I’ll bet some will still try). The 50 foot high waterfall that becomes 75 or 100 feet high now represents real danger and the possibility of death for PCs at this level. It’s unlikely that they’d take maximum damage from the fall, but most players are unlikely to risk that eventuality. By modifying the physical descriptions of the hazard the DCs go up and this skill challenge becomes challenging again.

  3. The Threat of Combat

  4. I find any skill challenge where a fight can break out more exciting, especially if the PCs don’t want to have this particular fight. If the PCs succeed at the skill challenge they avoid combat, but if they flub a few checks they suddenly find themselves fighting while crossing a hazardous river. What if there are creatures in the woods (on one or both sides of the river) that will attack the PCs if they hear them? What about savage water creatures in the river itself. Suddenly falling into the water means combat – underwater combat at that. A skill challenge that initially required only Athletics, Endurance and Nature checks now has an element of Stealth and Perception involved. The more tasks required to overcome a skill challenge usually means that a wider variety of skills are needed. This forces more PCs to work together if they want to succeed without any failures. Every check becomes vital. Crossing a river hasn’t been this exciting in a long time.

  5. A Time Limit

  6. This is the method I find more versatile at any level. I’ve found that skill challenge with time limits are always more exciting. It forces the PCs to use the skills, powers, abilities, and items in their possession right now. Perhaps they need to complete their journey from point A to point B before nightfall, or maybe they’re being pursued by a greater power or superior numbers. Anything that’s reasonable and makes sense is fair game. A time factor is one of the best ways to keep a skill challenge exciting and relevant. PCs at the top of the waterfall no longer have the option of heading upstream and looking for a safer place to cross, they have to cross here and now. Some options, like making a raft, may be too time-consuming to complete given the circumstances. An attempt to hastily make a raft requires a much higher DC for success then a raft made without the clock ticking. Suddenly risking a very difficult jump check may seem like a good idea if that will get someone across fast.

The setup for this sample skill challenge was pretty straight forward to begin with so ramping it up and making it more exciting was a relatively simple task. Other, more complicated skill challenges will obviously require more creative solutions. However, I find most skill challenges are easily adjusted using these three methods to make them more exciting, and thereby suitable for characters at higher levels.

One last thought when it comes to making skill challenges more exciting is to remember the “challenge breaker” concept. The challenge breaker is an action, task or circumstance that if undertaken successfully will end the skill challenge regardless of how many successes are normally required. Depending on the purpose of the original skill challenge, once PCs gain access to certain powers or items, these may become challenge breakers themselves. A party that can fly or teleport isn’t challenged by a rushing river atop a waterfall, no matter how wide the river. When the party has a resource that is a “challenge breaker” then it’s not necessary to even run this kind of skill challenge. In these circumstances just add the crossing to the narrative and focus on making the next skill challenge more exciting.

The Skill Challenges tab at the top of the page provides easy access to all of our skill aides and skill challenges.

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